Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Oh, for the Conventions of Yore!

"History lesson" alert.

It has become commonplace to lament the decline of the national political conventions from decision-making bodies to beauty pageants with a winner known in advance. While most would not want to return to 1920, when it took ten ballots before the Republicans nominated Warren G. Harding, or to 1924, when the Democrats struggled through 103 ballots (and 17 days) before nominating John W. Davis, there is still reason to desire that the Republicans and Democrats used the four days of their quadrennial conventions for more than receptions, buffets, hospitality suites, and message-testing for the TV cameras.

State nominating conventions -- as those who attended the recent Virginia GOP convention to select a Senate candidate can attest -- still make decisions, sometimes by a narrow margin.

The lack of drama at these conventions has led to a decline in interest among the general public, and even among political junkies. (If you are reading this blogpost, you probably fall into that latter category.) An article in Politico earlier this week noted how the TV networks are responding to this situation:

When Barack Obama made his first major appearance on the national stage in 2004, giving easily the most memorable speech of the Democratic National Convention, the traditional Big Three networks—ABC, CBS and NBC—had all returned to their regularly scheduled programming.

Gone are the days when the broadcast networks' extensive coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions was the only game in town, competing on late summer nights with a handful of television re-runs. As network viewership has declined and the political junkies have fled to cable, prime-time network coverage of the convention has dwindled.

Indeed, the Big Three each devoted just one hour in prime-time during three of four convention nights in 2004, with no live programming of that now memorable Tuesday night when Obama arrived on stage at Boston’s Fleet Center. Coincidentally, John McCain also spoke at Madison Square Garden before the networks were broadcasting live (Rudy Giuliani, though, got a coveted televised spot at the podium).
The article, by Michael Calderone, notes:
Phil Alongi, NBC’s executive producer for political coverage and special events, said that while the network has penciled in a similar programming schedule to 2004, he’s “always looking for a reason to get more air time.”

If the political parties were smart when putting together the schedule of speakers, Alongi said, “they’d come up with a hook to give us a reason to be on for longer than [during] the past few political cycles.”

It’s in part the over-scripted nature of recent conventions, where the nominees are known beforehand, that’s led to diminished interest. Where once conventions were where nominees were decided in backroom deals, now they’re where those already chosen are publicly coronated. And at this point, there’s little chance of a floor fight in Denver.
Calderone's piece brought to my mind an article I wrote a dozen years ago, reflecting on that year's Republican National Convention, which I watched (as much as I could) on television. (Later that year, I was able to attend the Democratic convention in person, covering the event [as much as I could] for The Metro Herald.)

Here is what I wrote in August 1996. It's amusing that my byline was stated as "entertainment editor" rather than, say, "political writer."
Longing for the Golden Days of Politics
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor
Exclusive to the Metro Herald

Ah, for the halcyon days of 1968! That was the year when Dan Rather was roughed up on the floor of the Democratic National Convention by "security guards" and John Chancellor ended a report from the same convention ". . . from somewhere in custody. . ." 1968 was when reporters scrambled to their typewriters at the Republican National Convention with a single question on their lips: "Spiro who?"

Watching the TV coverage of this year's Republican Convention from San Diego, one cannot help but be struck by how stage-managed and pre-programmed this quadrennial ritual has become. Democratic and Republican conventions no longer have any drama for television viewers or journalists. Nothing unpredictable happens. No wonder ABC's Ted Koppel pulled his crew out of San Diego and promises that he will not even bother to take Nightline to Chicago for the Democrats' coronation of Bill Clinton.

So thin is the news from San Diego that Scripps-Howard reported that a man dressed as a bumblebee outside the convention center attracted five reporters, all eagerly quizzing him.

Is this what American politics has come to?

Though the 1968 Democratic convention is remembered most vividly because it was marred by violence, it is only in the past few years that political conventions have become more like TV awards shows than like deliberative exercises of democracy. It is easy to imagine the announcer saying something like "And presenting the Grammy for best spin-doctoring by a duo or group is New York Congresswoman Susan Molinari! [Cheers and applause!]"

The vapidity of today's conventions -- and here I am talking about the major parties' conventions, not those of the Libertarians or the Perot party, which still hold the promise of unpredictability and the drama of spontaneity -- can be traced to the changes in the process of selecting presidential nominees that began in 1972. Since that time, the process has increasingly become front-loaded so that the nominee is determined several months before the conventions take place, with little chance of any debate or uncertainty.

Who recalls now that as recently as 1968, Ronald Reagan announced his presidential candidacy just two weeks before the Republican convention, yet he was still considered a serious challenger to front-runner Richard Nixon? Or how in that same year, George McGovern threw his hat in the ring at the last moment, in an effort to take up the banner of the slain Robert Kennedy? McGovern may have had little chance of beating Hubert Humphrey that year, but he clearly set the stage for his nomination victory four years later.

That 1972 Democratic Convention was not without its drama and controversy. I remember that, as a pajama-clad 13-year-old, I stayed up past 4:00 a.m. to watch McGovern's nomination acceptance speech, which had been interminably delayed by a rules battle on the convention floor. McGovern's message of "Come home, America" was heard by hardly anyone.

Even in 1976, the Republican convention was a cliffhanger. Incumbent President Gerald Ford eked out a nomination victory over challenger Ronald Reagan by only a handful of votes. No one knew, going into the convention, whether Ford or Reagan would emerge as the nominee. Despite Ford's winning bid, the convention clearly belonged to Reagan. Ford delivered the most powerful address of his political career in Kansas City, reminding Americans that "a government big enough to give you everything you want is powerful enough to take away everything you have." Yet he was forced by circumstances to invite Governor Reagan to the podium following his acceptance speech, and Reagan stole the spirit of the convention by delivering -- without notes or a teleprompter -- a gracious and energizing valedictory address. The Republican Party has never been the same; it has been Reagan's party since that night.

Remember the excitement of 1980, when Senator Ted Kennedy mounted a vigorous challenge to incumbent President Jimmy Carter? The race was close; Carter feared a loss until the weekend before the convention, when CBS News reporter Roger Mudd asked Kennedy why he wanted to be president. Kennedy, looking befuddled, was at a loss for words. The best he could muster sounded much like Bob Dole's "well, it's my turn." Kennedy's faltering response handed Carter the nomination.

That same year, the Republican convention was abuzz with rumors about Reagan's possible running mate. Walter Cronkite reported that he had it on good authority -- reputedly former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger -- that Reagan would name former President Ford as his vice presidential partner. These rumors proved false, of course, but they were taken quite seriously up until the moment that Reagan, in a break with tradition, appeared on the floor of the convention shortly after the nomination vote was taken, to say that as much as he respected President Ford, his choice for vice president was runner-up George Bush. It was a powerfully dramatic moment, both for the conventioneers and the vast television audience.

This year's conventions lack all drama. Everything is plasticized. There is no digression from a minutely-planned script, with everything of importance taking place in prime time. With no surprises -- even Dole's running mate was announced before the convention began -- there is little to report. Except for Nancy Reagan's thoughtful and heartfelt address in tribute to her husband -- during which one could hear a pin drop anywhere in America -- the Republican convention had all the class of a late-night infomercial -- it lacks only an 800-number with "operators standing by to take your order!"

The front-loading of the presidential primary season deserves major scrutiny. It effectively excludes the majority of party members from participating in the selection of their parties' nominees. For instance, Virginia's delegate-selection process takes place so late in the season that Virginia has no -- zero -- impact on the nomination. Republicans and Democrats need to rethink their emphasis on Iowa and New Hampshire. If political parties are to have any substantive meaning in the new millennium, they must renew and reinvigorate their conventions as deliberative, decisionmaking events. The vitality of the parties -- of our democracy -- depends on it.
In retrospect, it's interesting to see that Virginia's February presidential primary actually did have an impact this year, at least on the Democratic side. Obama's decisive victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of the major elements that suggest Virginia is "in play" this year, rather than firmly in the Republican column.

The nomination-process calendar still needs to be reformed. It's ridiculous for the Iowa caucuses to take place as early as January 3 and for the New Hampshire primary to virtually as early. It ill-serves voters, candidates, and political parties to cluster so many primary elections together and to front-load them.

No comments: